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Sharansky Bid for Agency Head Seen As Lacking Diaspora Support

June 13, 2005
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Natan Sharansky may have made waves in Israel by announcing his candidacy for the helm of the Jewish Agency for Israel after the organization nearly had secured its support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s nominee. On this side of the ocean, Sharansky’s candidacy is making some ripples, but he seems unlikely to gain much support.

A former Soviet-era refusenik and Israeli minister of Diaspora affairs, Sharansky would seem to have a broad network of contacts among Diaspora Jewry to help support him in his run.

But Diaspora leaders seem unlikely to abandon their support for Zeev Bielski, the popular mayor of Ra’anana, who was nominated by Sharon and approved by the Jewish Agency’s advise-and-consent committee.

“I don’t believe there will be a shift” in support, said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and past president of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body of North American Jewish federations.

“I just think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for Zeev and his working with the Diaspora in a very tachlis,” or nuts-and-bolts, “way within the Jewish Agency, and I believe that people won’t switch just because somebody else says they’re interested,” Hoffman said.

The Jewish Agency is a $350 million organization dedicated to promoting and overseeing aliyah, as well as Zionist education programs worldwide. Its chairman also chairs the World Zionist Organization, which has a small budget but represents Diaspora and Israeli political parties and comprises half of the Jewish Agency’s board of trustees.

U.S. Jewish officials are skeptical that Sharansky’s bid to chair the agency will succeed.

Sharansky resigned from the Cabinet last month because he opposes the government’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, a plan that has widespread backing among American Jews.

Given the ideological clash on one of the most critical issues facing Israel today, it’s unlikely Sharansky can win more support than Bielski, who supports the withdrawal, observers say.

Several Diaspora officials view the candidacy as a political feud between Sharon and Sharansky.

Others say the move reflects internal Likud politics: Likudniks who oppose Sharon’s withdrawal plan, and who feel insulted that they weren’t consulted about the choice of Bielski, put Sharansky up to the bid, several sources said.

Sharansky has submitted his nomination to World Likud to head the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency.

On Thursday, World Likud officials petitioned the party’s top internal court against Bielski’s nomination, asking for a restraining order to force Sharon to support the candidate who wins the June 19 race for the World Likud’s candidacy.

Sharansky is competing against Gideon Patt, past president and CEO of Israel Bonds and a former Israeli tourism minister, as well as a little-known candidate involved in Likud in Beersheba.

It’s considered highly unusual for the prime minister’s candidate to be challenged.

The Zionist General Council, which meets in Jerusalem from June 21-24, will select the new Jewish Agency chairman. Any candidate would need approval from both the Jewish Agency’s advise-and-consent committee and Sharon, and then from the agency’s assembly, an enlarged governing body.

Ari Harow, national executive director of American Friends of Likud,

believes Sharansky has a good chance of becoming head of the WZO.

“He’s a Jewish hero. He’s someone who is recognized as such all over the world,” Harow said. “I would like to believe that they definitely will consider him seriously. I can’t think of many people who could do a better job for the Jewish people than Natan Sharansky.”

The conflict could result in an unprecedented split of the joint chairmanships of the WZO and the Jewish Agency, with Sharansky heading the former and Bielski the latter, Harow said.

Others think that’s unlikely.

“It would be like having a president of the United States for foreign affairs and a president of the United States for domestic affairs,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, former executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America and a member of the WZO’s governing board.

Splitting the jobs would be a “recipe for disaster,” Ganchrow said. “They’re interlocking; they’re related. It’s the same people, the same bureaucracy, the same building.”

While Sharansky would make a “wonderful choice,” he has a slim chance of winning the job, Ganchrow said.

“It’s not likely such a decision will be made on the floor of a convention,” he said. “The prime minister is going to be the prime force in making the choice.”

Carole Solomon, who chairs the Jewish Agency’s board of governors, called the dispute “kind of a nonissue.” Solomon said she hadn’t been informed of any candidate other than Bielski.

Even if Sharansky becomes World Likud’s nominee, some say Diaspora Jews won’t back such a challenge to the sitting prime minister of Israel.

Sharansky’s candidacy puts the agency “in the middle of a political process in which it doesn’t belong,” said Richard Wexler of Chicago, who heads the Jewish Agency’s North American Council.

“The prime minister has made his recommendation. The recommendation has been accepted by all the governance areas of Diaspora Jewry, and that’s the process that is supposed to be followed,” he said.

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